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Valerie Schultz

The environmentalist mantra of "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" names some timely goals for our society. The earth is our home, but we aren't always good about taking care of it. Finding ways to reduce our consumption of natural resources, or to reuse or recycle those resources, is an excellent resolution for the new year.

I can attest that reusing and recycling come naturally to a large family, sometimes to a fault. My fourth daughter made my heart hurt a little bit when, one Christmas morning years ago, she opened a present containing a new dress and exclaimed, "My own clothes!" When there are three girls in the family before you, you have an extensive wardrobe without your parents ever having to buy you anything new.

Going secondhand is a way to reduce, reuse and recycle all at once. I am a lifetime lover of thrift stores, of the offbeat, surprising clothing one can find if one is willing to look through a lot of less attractive outfits. I have been to secondhand shops, also known as "vintage" stores, where everything is freshly washed and displayed on hangars and correspondingly higher-priced, and I've been to warehouses with bins full of random, gritty articles of clothing that cost a quarter and may or may not come with communicable diseases. (To be honest, I was more likely to visit the latter type of establishment in my younger, pre-motherhood days.)

Several months ago, I bought a shirt from an unusual source: the local dry cleaner was selling a rack of garments that had been dropped off for dry cleaning and never reclaimed. Whenever I wear this shirt, I am a little nervous that some strange woman about my size will accost me and say, "Hey! That's my shirt!" So far, this has not happened.

I sometimes wonder about the history of the secondhand clothes I adopt as my own, and the circumstances under which they were donated. I think about how my dad, not long before he died, gave his business suits to a charitable group that provides clothing to men being released from prison. My dad liked the idea of his suits going to outfit job-hunting parolees, and I find it bittersweet to imagine his business wardrobe contributing to some fellow's new lease on life. I can picture my dad's secondhand clothes leading to firsthand success.

My husband and I furnished our long-ago first apartment in Goodwill style, and we have since been fortunate to acquire some lovely hand-me-downs when tonier relatives redecorate. My husband has always been able to turn an eclectic collection of things into an agreeable home. His artistic sensibilities have been passed on to a couple of our daughters, in that they also can make the cast-off look chic.

Secondhand choices contribute to a gentler human impact on the earth. We live in an increasingly throwaway society, where disposable items may be helpful to containing the spread of germs, but may also be destructive to our environment. Over-burdened landfills and the constant production of cheap, single-use plastics are contributing to an unhealthy, unhappy planet. And I am a guilty consumer. The coffee maker I use every morning involves a little plastic cup that I throw in the trash, and I haven't quite gotten around to buying the alternative cup that you can refill and reuse. I'm in a hurry most mornings, and discarding is much easier than washing and drying. If my personal convenience is more important than the common good, what happens when that selfish sentiment if multiplied by the population of the planet? I like to think that my recycling will hardly affect the entire earth, but in reality, the entire earth is affected when we collectively think like that.

Secondhand living is not always a choice. We Americans have the luxury of deciding to lessen our impact on the planet, but many citizens of the world live in the kind of stark poverty that requires sifting through the refuse of the wealthy for food, shelter, and clothing. For these people, the secondhand lifestyle is a matter of survival. What we toss aside without a thought can mean a full belly or a warmer body or a dry place to sleep for someone else.

In some areas of life, of course, secondhand is not always best. Secondhand information is often unreliable. Depending on how far removed from the source, the things we hear secondhand can be incomplete or misleading or just plain false. Secondhand furniture is considerably less harmful than secondhand talk.

This world we are supposed to care for, God's creation, is the ultimate secondhand possession: We get it from our fathers and mothers, and we pass it on our children. Rather than tossing it into a bin, maybe we should clean it up, put a spit shine on it, and hand it on with care. It is, after all, vintage. And it's the only one we have.

These are the opinions of Valerie Schultz, not necessarily those of The Californian. Email her at